HL Deb 20 January 2003 vol 643 cc500-16

6.58 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Commit tee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Lyell) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [The general duty]:

Lord Phillips of Sudbury moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 5, leave out from second "is" to "to" in line 6 and insert "a fair, efficient and effective system promoting confidence in the rule of law so as

The noble Lord said: The purpose of the first amendment is to try to ensure that this crucial clause, around which the whole of the Bill revolves, is more meaningful and provides more guidance to the Lord Chancellor, the courts, justices of the peace and those who run the courts.

It is obvious—many have said it—that the Bill centralises power in the hands of the Lord Chancellor and the proposed national agency in a way that justice has never been centralised in this country. That being so, it is not just desirable but essential that the duty placed on the Lord Chancellor with regard to the running of the court system as a whole be as explicit as possible, without being too confining and inflexible. The Bill is littered with a panoply of powers and rights on the Lord Chancellor's behalf, so it is the more important that where there is an expression of his or her duty, it should be phrased in justiciable terms.

Clause 1(1) describes the Lord Chancellor's duty under the Bill as being, to ensure that there is an efficient and effective system to support the carrying on the business of", the courts, and that appropriate services are provided for those courts". One need not be Alice in Wonderland to think that the key words, "efficient", "effective" and "appropriate", are about as vague and empty of meaning as any three words could be. They are words that would appeal to the dictator and the tyrant as giving him about as much rope as he could ever require. Not for a second do I equate the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor with tyranny, but my point is obvious.

The insertion proposed by Amendment No. 1 is fairly modest, but takes the general duty considerably further by referring to fairness and promotion of the interests of justice. Those words are not mine, they are taken from the mission statement of the courts agency. What is good for the legislative goose is good for the gander. I should be disappointed—nay, suspicious—if such gentle words as fairness and promotion of the interests of justice should be in any way obnoxious to the Government. I beg to move.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 in the name of my noble friend, which are grouped with the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has moved. He is absolutely right; I agree with his introduction of his amendment. This clause is crucial and we need to give more guidance to the public, the courts and the Lord Chancellor about how the statutory duty will operate.

The Bill's drafting makes us believe that local justice is under threat from the Government. Although they wax lyrical about the importance of devolving government to the regions and localities, the Bill comprehensively centralises power in the hands of the Lord Chancellor. Amendment No. 2 challenges the Government to make it plain on the face of the Bill that they will consider the needs of rural as well as urban areas in fulfilling the duty in Clause 1. As the noble Lord explained, the clause places a statutory duty on the Lord Chancellor to ensure that there is an efficient and effective courts system and that he provides the right services for the courts. Our amendment adds necessary clarity to that duty.

It is all too easy for a Lord Chancellor keen on streamlining a centralised system in which he is carefully paring down the budget to withdraw services from some areas despite the cost and inconvenience that that may bring to the public who use the courts. The Committee may be aware from a Written Answer given in another place on 29th October that since 1997, 96 magistrates' courts have closed, while only 14 new ones have opened. From Appleby to Ripon, from Windermere to South Molton, in Devon, courts have closed the length and breadth of the country. The victims of crime, witnesses and defendants on bail all have to travel longer distances. As Lord Justice Auld pointed out on page 301 of his report: In mid-Wales, Devon and Cornwall and Cumbria, for example, current closures can result in a 30 or 40 miles travelling distance to and from court, often without a choice of convenient public transport". As the Deputy Chairman of the Magistrates' Association said: the closures now are seriously going to disrupt local and community justice because they will just put pressure on other parts of the justice system—the police, probation and social services". Lord Justice Auld explained in his report how the closures are driven by the Government. As he states: In the case of closure of a magistrates' court, the decision is notionally that of the Magistrates' Courts Committee, but they are so bound by his"— the Lord Chancellor's— guidelines as to usage, available modern facilities, accommodation for prisoners and budgetary restrictions that, effectively, closures are driven by his Department". So it seems only right that the statutory duty that the Bill imposes on the Lord Chancellor should make it as clear as day that his responsibility must be to provide a system that serves both rural and urban areas well.

Amendment No. 4 develops the theme explored by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, but I shall address a specific issue about the report to be issued. Clause 1(4) states that the Lord Chancellor must publish an annual report on the business of the courts. That implies that he does not have to address what is provided in the final line of subsection (1), line 10, which includes in his duty that he should ensure, that appropriate services are provided for those courts".

I table the amendment simply to ask the Minister to put on the record an assurance—which I hope that she can give with ease—that the report will cover not only details of the business of the supreme court, county courts and magistrates' courts but of the Lord Chancellor's performance in providing appropriate services. That would involve a statement of what he considers to be appropriate services and an assessment of how closely his provision has matched the ideal during the period of the report. If she is able to give such an assurance, she may want to consider some redrafting of the clause.

Lord Jones

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, emphasised the centralisation of powers and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, has shrewdly underscored the problems of rural areas. With local justice in mind, I first pay tribute to the work of countless magistrates throughout the nation.

The system of local justice is well proven. There is an army of voluntary citizens of repute and integrity—not least in Wales. In my 31 years in another place, I never once received a complaint about magistrates' courts in all my always voluminous mailbag. Magistrates are invaluable. They are known, tried and tested. They are successful, experienced and cooperative. They represent a very British tradition.

I am concerned about the loss of magistrates' courts in Wales, in her rural areas. Court closures in rural areas pose real problems, especially for those who are not comfortably off. No one can any longer be sure of the reliability of the rural bus services. A bus fare for a long distance can mount up to a king's ransom. Even in the urban area with which I am familiar in northeast Wales, real difficulties are faced by those who must place their trust in a bus service to get to a distant magistrates' court. For instance, to travel one-way by taxi from urban Deeside to the magistrates' courts at Mold—the county seat—might cost more than £6. That is a large amount for some and particularly for someone without a regular income who may face a fine at the magistrates' court. We have closed enough magistrates' courts. Rural Wales should take no more closures, and there should be no more closures in urban areas of Wales.

Lord Waddington

It is with some diffidence that I rise so early in the Committee stage, but there is a general point to be made that has a bearing on all the amendments that have been tabled to what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, described as a centralising measure.

Before we impose any new duties on the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, as the Bill and the proposed amendments would do, we should pause to consider the powers and duties that the noble and learned Lord already has and the great increase in those powers in recent years. I hope that we will receive some assurance that further changes in the responsibilities of the noble and learned Lord's department are not in the offing, with further powers to be conferred on the department. The answer to that question will cover my response to many of the proposals in the Bill and to many of the amendments.

The responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor's Department have been greatly expanded in recent years. Responsibility for the magistrates' courts, for instance, was transferred to the Lord Chancellor's Department from the Home Office in 1992 by The Transfer of Functions (Magistrates' Courts and Family Law) Order. In 2001, there was a greater extension of the powers of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. According to The Civil Service Year Book, the Lord Chancellor is also responsible for, a number of constitutional policy matters, transferred from the Home Office in June 2001. These include Royal, church and hereditary matters and policy on fundamental marriage law, same-sex issues and transsexual people". It goes on: The Lord Chancellor is the Privy Counsellor primarily concerned with the affairs of the Crown Dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man and is the channel of communication between the insular authorities and the Crown and the UK Government". That is of interest to me. According to paragraph 839 of volume 6 of Halsbury's Statutes, the Home Secretary is the Minister responsible. I certainly thought that I was responsible when I was Home Secretary. If that change has come about, it has done so recently and must be noted.

The entry in The Civil Service Year Book goes on to say that the Lord Chancellor has, oversight of a wide programme of Government civil legislation and reform in such fields as human rights, freedom of information, data protection, family law, property law, defamation and legal aid and House of Lords Reform". It cannot be doubted that there has been a considerable accretion to the powers of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in recent years. We must ask ourselves whether that is a desirable state of affairs.

Once, the Lord Chancellor's Department was a small department, staffed by lawyers. Now, it has a budget of nearly £3 billion and a staff of 12,000. Small wonder that a new House of Commons Select Committee is to be set up to oversee the work of the Lord Chancellor's Department. I read that the department is to have a new name: it is to be the Department for Justice, Rights and the Constitution. Is it not well on the way to becoming an all-powerful Ministry of Justice? Is that what we want? Is that the way that we are going? If so, we should be aware of it.

Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4 may be seen as useful, but they should be seen against the background of a department under the leadership of a Lord Chancellor bent on increasing his empire. How can the Bill be read in a different way, when the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is putting civil servants in charge of the magistrates' courts, rather than locally accountable magistrates' courts committees? That is not done to ensure the best local service possible hut in the belief that more control by the department will yield cuts in costs. Anyone who doubts that should study the interview reported in the Daily Telegraph on 15th April last year. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred to, vast opportunities for economies of scale". Secondly, the Bill puts courts administration councils, which are advisory bodies, in the place of the magistrates' courts committees, which have real powers, are truly accountable and have ensured that magistrates' courts have performed at least as efficiently—more efficiently, many may say—as have the Crown Courts. The Bill takes from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster powers to appoint magistrates in Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. Only two years ago, a similar proposal was put out to consultation; it received minimal support and had to be withdrawn by the Government. That proposal was made in the interests of uniformity for uniformity's sake. Goodness me, why would the Government reintroduce a proposal that was almost universally condemned only two years ago, unless it is because of the determination of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to concentrate more and more powers in his own hands?

I hope that everybody who will take part in the Committee stage will not just consider the wording of amendments but will ask themselves some serious questions about whether this is, in fact, an exercise in concentrating more powers in the hands of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and his department, as we move inexorably towards a Ministry of Justice.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

I must take issue with what the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, has just said. I recognise that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has become the member of the Government responsible for oversight of the constitution. However, critical as I am, from time to time, of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor—we will certainly be critical of many parts of the Bill—I would slightly prefer that the constitution should be in his hands than in those of the Home Secretary. We need not go into that question to any great extent when considering this Bill.

I agreed with everything said by my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury, by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, and by the noble Lord, Lord Jones. The Bill loses sight of the importance of the principle of justice. As the House's Constitution Committee said, the Bill raises constitutional issues. It is unfortunate that we begin with Clause 1(1) referring to an efficient and effective system for the carrying on of business. The Bill is about justice. It is essential that not only should there be an efficient and effective system, but, as my noble friend's amendment points out, that it should be fair and should further the rule of law. That is why I am keen to support the amendment. Its significance may be largely symbolic, but symbols are sometimes very powerful instruments. I should feel much happier about this Bill if at the beginning it states that it is concerned with justice and not just with administration of the court system.

Lord Borrie

I want to address my remarks to one or two of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. I fully agreed with earlier points made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, regarding the relationship between the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department. I believe that the early 1990s transfer of power and the supervision of magistrates' courts from the Home Office to the Lord Chancellor's Department was not before time. Since the Beeching report of 1970, it has been exceedingly appropriate that the Home Office, with its huge range of responsibilities, including those for the police and the prosecution service, should not also be responsible for the administration of the courts. A start was made in the 1970s and 1980s towards the Lord Chancellor's Department having overall supervision of all courts, not just the superior courts. Taking the responsibility for magistrates' courts from the Home Office seemed to me to be highly appropriate, not before time, and certainly should not be questioned today. Probably, the Minister was pleased by the extremes of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, when he spoke in terms of the accretion of power to the Lord Chancellor—making it sound as though it was personal—and suggesting that in this Bill the accretion of power is going much too far.

I accept that there is plenty of room for argument during the course of debating the amendments and raising the issues of how the administration should be run, the management of magistrates' courts, and so forth. However, it would be inappropriate to examine this Bill against a background of feeling that there is an accretion of power which is wholly undesirable when, to my mind, it is logical and sensible that there should be one government department concerned with the administration of the courts as a whole.

Lord Dixon-Smith

I make a plea for rural areas to be taken properly into consideration in these matters. Whether a person is the victim of a charge or the victim of a burglary, access to justice is very significant. I come from Essex—Welsh noble Lords may not even recognise it as rural. However, decisions taken in the past, in the name of rationalisation, on access to magistrates' courts mean that even in Essex it is quite likely that a person may have to travel on public transport for over an hour and a half in order to get to a court. Most people in Essex have inevitably solved the problem in the environmentally unfriendly way—by owing a car. Even a car is not without its expense and troubles. If a person owns an old banger, it may not always guarantee to get a person to court in time. Therefore, the question of access is fundamentally important. Although it may fly in the face of efficiency and effectiveness, it should be considered.

In the light of what has just been said, the question of the powers of the Lord Chancellor should be addressed. The powers are spelt out in considerable detail in this Bill—I read them with considerable interest. I admit that I had somewhat peculiar feelings about them because if the Lord Chancellor were properly to spend his time on the responsibilities which this Bill gives him, when there is no process or mechanism for those responsibilities to be undertaken or fulfilled on his behalf, the likelihood is that he would not have time to appear in this Chamber, as he formally and properly should. Under the Bill, the business of running the justice of this country, which is his and his personally, could not properly be undertaken unless it became virtually a full-time job. Therefore, I have somewhat ambivalent feelings on this matter.

Eighteen separate executive functions are listed in the Bill, some of which the Lord Chancellor executes at present under known processes, but no process is described on the face of the Bill as to how he should fulfil those functions. Those are functions which are totally and personally his responsibility. The Lord Chancellor has the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, as a very able assistant. He has a whole department full of civil servants who may well undertake much of this work. But the way in which it is to be described in the Bill is not set out. We have no knowledge of what is to happen. As drafted, responsibility is personally with the Lord Chancellor, in a way that is different and distinct from the ways in which I have usually seen ministerial responsibilities described in a Bill. That concerns me.

I have every faith in the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, but when a tool is fashioned, it should be remembered that reasonable people may not always be the people who will use it. We should be concerned about that particular aspect.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

I agree with what my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said about the importance of close scrutiny of any powers which are conferred or added to at the hands of the executive. On reading the Second Reading debate again, one notes that time and again noble Lords perceive this measure as centralising. Time and again, the importance of local justice is emphasised and the two are really incompatible.

Therefore, it is right that in a Bill which greatly enhances the power of the Lord Chancellor, it should begin with a statement of general duty. I speak with great diffidence on any matter connected with parliamentary drafting in the presence of my noble friend Lord Renton who is a great authority on the subject. Purists cavil at statements of general duty; still more, at statements of general purpose. They actually come to very much the same thing.

We are now into a cult—and I do not believe that it is one that will be reversed—where Bills begin with very general statements of this character. I, for one, do not object to that in this Bill. However, I want to see a broader formulation of the general duty than the clause gives at present. I thought that I might venture, presumptuously, to offer the Minister a tiny bit of assistance in formulating her reply. I fear that at the foot of her brief there appears the word in capital letters "Resist".

I support Amendment No. 1 moved by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. The Minister will notice that the words "efficient" and "effective" are common to both the amendment and the Bill. Therefore, if she is looking for justification for objecting to the amendment, it must be on a ground other than the inclusion of "efficient and effective system".

Can the Minister really find it in her heart to object to the word "fair" being added to the general duty? It would be difficult to do that, it seems to me, but she is a person of great ingenuity. I know that she would not wish to find a way of objecting to that, so perhaps her mind will be concentrated on the last part, which is, promoting confidence in the rule of law so as to support the carrying on of the business". Can one really object to a general duty having the objective of promoting confidence in the rule of law?

All Members of the Committee have spoken of the need for public confidence in the system of justice, and the reasons for that do not need reciting. I therefore hope that she will accept that analysis of the task which will confront her if she resists the amendment and concentrates on those two short points.

As regards Amendments Nos. 2 and 4, without repeating what has been said, I greatly support the importance of rural justice. One of the grounds for changing the administration of the magistrates' courts in the Bill is the wide variation in the performance of magistrates' courts throughout the country as against a particular target. Rural magistrates' courts are often singled out for adverse comment. One of the reasons for cases having to be adjourned must be that witnesses, let alone parties, find it impossible to reach court in time. They have to travel long distances on erratic bus services and sometimes find themselves unable to attend. What then happens? The court either has to dispose of the case in the absence of a witness, in which case justice is not done, or the case is adjourned, which plays havoc with target records. That is where the proposal comes in. I cannot for the life of me see how there can be a reasonable objection to adding the words, in both rural and urban areas". We are greatly involved in annual performance reports, which is where Amendment No. 4 comes in. I welcome the proposal under Clause 1(4) that: The Lord Chancellor must, within 18 months of the coining into force of this section, and afterwards annually, prepare and lay before both Houses of Parliament a report as to the business of the courts". All that is sought to be added are the words, and the manner in which he has fulfilled his general duty in relation to the courts". What is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the noble and learned gander and I would find great comfort if those words were added. I hope that the Minister will accede at least to that.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Renton

This is the first time I have intervened in any way on the Bill. In doing so, perhaps I should mention that I have had a lot of experience of the matters contained in it. I was a Home Office Minister for four and a half years, admittedly many years ago. In those days, I was puzzled by the idea that the administration of justice should be divided between the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor. However, as regards magistrates' courts, we must be careful about over-centralisation when the Lord Chancellor, rather than the Home Secretary, assumes responsibility, as he will do under the Bill.

We have not yet been told, and we may not learn in detail, the precise administrative proposals that the Lord Chancellor has, or will have, for the administration of justice in the magistrates' courts. But I believe that the present system of enabling local influence and power to be exerted in the choice of magistrates is most useful. I do not see any need for that to change merely because the Lord Chancellor, rather than the Home Secretary, will be responsible when the Bill comes into force.

Furthermore, I assume that the magistrates' courts will be brought under the control of the Lord Chancellor. I do not believe that any Members on our side will go so far as to try to change that, but we should try to ensure that the change is made in a way that enables justice to be done locally, even if the Lord Chancellor has to answer to Parliament for the way in which it is done.

I hate talking about myself, but it happens that I became a Queen's Counsel a long time ago—nearly 50 years ago. I had a varied experience undertaking minor judicial work as a recorder, chairman of quarter sessions and so forth. Indeed, for a couple of years I was a relief judge at the Old Bailey. Therefore, I naturally want to draw upon my memories of legal experience—and I share much more important and recent memories with my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew and others who have already spoken. I believe that when making such a fundamental change in our law we must be most careful. We must ensure that the statute in which it is done puts the matter in a way which is lucid, in the public interest and places the necessary responsibility on the Lord Chancellor but does not go into too much detail.

I am sorry to have spoken so generally, but I now turn to the amendments. I agree with my noble and learned friend that we should favour the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips—or at least something on those lines. He has it pretty well right. Strictly speaking, from the drafting point of view, in using the general expression "magistrates' courts" it should not be necessary to refer to the "rural and urban areas". However, in the circumstances, in order to draw attention to the rural court, I see no harm in making those words part of the drafting. Therefore, I favour that amendment.

As regards Amendment No. 4, put forward by my noble friends on the Front Bench, I wonder whether the use of the phrase, the manner in which he has fulfilled his general duty in relation to the courts", will lead to some slight confusion. What kind of manner is required? Is it an administrative duty? Is it a political duty? "Manner" is a rather dangerous word to use, but if we can find a better word, the purpose of Amendment No. 4 is most worthy.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I never dreamt that we would have such an exciting start to the Courts Bill. "Tyranny" and "the end of justice as we know it" have been referred to. If only it were so exciting. The Bill is about justice—and justice is the most important issue.

Clause 1 deals with the duty placed upon the Lord Chancellor to ensure that there is, an efficient and effective system"— these are the important words— to support the carrying on of the business of … the Supreme Court … county courts, and … magistrates' courts". There is not a Member of the Committee who does not know that the business of the Supreme Court, the county courts and the magistrates' courts is justice.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for bringing forward, as he promised at Second Reading, the proposed amendment to Clause 1 because it gives me an opportunity to set out clearly what we aim to achieve. I thank also the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for exposing so fully and exhorting the powers that the Lord Chancellor's Department now has. It is a little known fact and I am grateful to him for enumerating the burden that now rests so weightily on the shoulders of the Lord Chancellor and his junior Ministers. I thank the noble Lord wholeheartedly for that.

However, some of the burdens were transferred a while ago. Transfers of ministerial functions are made regularly to effect improvements in the delivery of government business and, in this case, improvements in the justice system. None of the burdens transferred to the Lord Chancellor has been ill-placed. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that no one in this Chamber should under-estimate the Lord Chancellor's capacity for work. If the 20-hour day was invented, it was probably invented for him if for no one else.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, was concerned about the formulation of effective and efficient administration and the reason for the reform. The reform is intended to improve the management of the system. The unification of the management of the courts will enable better use of resources at national and local levels, including better use of the court estate. The agency will be flexible, matching resources to need, unhindered by organisational boundaries. It will be more efficient and provide better value through the sharing and pooling of resources and greater purchasing power, freeing resource for front-line operations.

The Committee will remember that in his report Lord Justice Auld identified the difficulties currently experienced as a result of the way in which the courts are managed. At page 290 of the report he stated: The present divided system leads to much waste of court and other accommodation. There is some sharing between the Crown Court and the magistrates' courts. But it is complicated by different ownership, funding and timing arrangements and Treasury Guidelines". So the unified administration could provide wider opportunities for sharing accommodation, enabling greater flexibility and use of resources.

We have already identified about 70 county courts where there is potential for co-locating hearings with magistrates' courts, where joint use will make the courts more viable than maintaining separate, under-used facilities which might otherwise be under threat of closure. I heard what a number of noble Lords said about the need to keep justice local and to utilise the courts estate in a proper way. This measure is a way of doing so more efficiently and effectively.

There are examples of co-operation happening now. Co-location of county courts within magistrates' courts buildings already exists in a number of locations around the country—for example, Rotherham, Kendal and Ashford—and Altrincham county court has recently moved into improved accommodation in Trafford magistrates' court. But projects such as these are voluntary and the procedures are cumbersome. Where accommodation is shared, the agreement of three different organisations is required to get a project off the ground—the Court Service, the magistrates' courts committee and the local authority which is an area's "paying authority".

The improved access to local courts sought by my noble friend Lord Jones, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and other Members of the Committee can be achieved by unifying the courts administration—which will enable better management of the resources at our disposal—and not by a change in the wording of the clause. The import of what we are doing is very important. This is not a centralising measure but an opportunity to achieve real local accountability and local involvement.

Amendment No. 2, which stands in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, is unnecessary. The general duty already requires that the Lord Chancellor provides support to the business of the Supreme Court and all county courts and magistrates' courts, regardless of whether they are located in rural, urban, or indeed semi-rural or suburban areas.

Amendment No. 4, which stands in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Hunt, and to which the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, spoke with her usual eloquence, requires that the annual report on the business of the courts under Clause 1(4) will include a report on the manner in which the Lord Chancellor has fulfilled his Clause 1 duty to ensure that there is an efficient and effective system to support the courts, and that appropriate services are provided for the courts.

Such a provision is unnecessary. Consistent with our intention to establish an executive agency to carry out the day-to-day running of the courts, the annual report of that agency will be laid before Parliament to satisfy the requirement in the clause. The annual report will give information about the business of all the courts and will, for the first time, present performance information about the magistrates' courts and the Crown Court in a single annual report, available for public and parliamentary scrutiny. It will also include corporate information about the agency itself, including its framework document. 'This report will provide the committee with all the information it seeks about the way in which the courts are managed.

The clause is in line with Section 1(12) of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, which currently requires the Lord Chancellor to report on the business of the courts and under which the Court Service annual report is laid before Parliament. I have noted the concerns of noble Lords about this subsection in general and I shall give further consideration as to how these concerns may be satisfied.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, pointed out, there is a variation in performance across the country and a real need for improvement. The Bill will make no changes to the system for appointing magistrates. It will retain the magistrates' local links and magistrates will be assigned to local justice areas.

At the moment it is not the Lord Chancellor who makes decisions in relation to closures but the magistrates' court committee. The Lord Chancellor becomes involved only if there is an appeal by the paying authority, the local authority. Guidance on courthouse closures issued to the MCCs by the CCMCC is being updated to include a rural proofing check list to ensure that any impact on rural users is taken into account. This move is in accordance with the report of Lord Justice Auld and will bring about the improvements that Members of the Committee very much want to see.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

I have been listening to the verbiage in which everything surrounding the Bill is steeped. What on earth is a "rural proofing checklist"? What on earth is an "internal and external stakeholder"—the phrase used in the letter distributed by the noble Baroness? What specifically in this context is meant by "local accountability"—a phrase used a short time ago by the noble Baroness? What does it mean? It certainly does not mean the power of hiring and firing staff; it does not mean the power of directing staff and telling them what to do; or conducting any managerial form. What does "local accountability" mean in plain English, so that we can all understand it?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

It may be helpful to the Committee if I comment on the amendments standing in my name before the Minister responds. She may find it convenient to respond to both at the same time.

Perhaps I may begin with my Amendment No. 4. I listened carefully to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Renton. I always defer to him on drafting. I accept entirely what he said in regard to my use of the word "manner". I shall take the amendment away and examine it carefully.

I was disappointed to hear the Minister say that the amendment is unnecessary. I shall not press it at this stage, because I accept the view of my noble friend Lord Renton that it is not as well drafted as it might be. However, for the convenience of the Committee, I should point out that I find the Minister's response to Amendment No. 2 disappointing, particularly in the light of the supporting comments by Members of the Committee regarding the importance of the Government's mind being focused on both rural and urban matters.

The Minister says that the amendment is unnecessary. It is my view that it is necessary. It would act as a simple aide-mémoire to future generations of Lord Chancellors. Earlier, the Minister referred to the personality—the person who currently occupies the office of Lord Chancellor. But we are talking about the office itself, as it will persist, we hope, for generations to come.

Therefore, Amendment No. 2 perhaps deserves more regard from the Government. It offers a practical and perhaps a right way forward to achieve greater clarity in Clause 1. On that basis, I give notice that if the Minister is unable to accept the amendment I may well be minded to press it when it is called.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

The Minister may prefer to answer those points before I make my comments on her response. It is entirely up to her.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

I am happy to respond to both points. In regard to the first set of comments, one has to examine the Bill clause by clause. I hope that in the letter I wrote in December I made it absolutely clear who the stakeholders are. Although I used the general term, I went on to specify that they are the court users, the agencies, the judges and all others engaged in work in the courts.

As I hope Members of the Committee will have seen both from my letter in December and from my further letter in January, the Lord Chancellor's Department intends to have a series of consultations right across the country. These will involve all those who currently use the courts in a discussion as to what the ambit of the council should be and what that of the agency should be.

We feel strongly that "local accountability" means just that—full engagement of the local users in the fashioning of the new system to make sure that it works. We understand absolutely that one size will not fit all. The kind of arrangements that will be necessary in urban areas may be significantly different from those in rural areas. We want the flexibility to be able to reflect those differences.

As regards the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, in relation to Amendment No. 2, we are concerned that all county courts and all magistrates' courts should be involved. As I said in answer to her question, one goes from rural to urban, to semi-rural, and to suburban areas. The last thing anyone in this Chamber would want is those in a particular area believing they are not involved. The word "all" means just that—absolutely every court in England and Wales which is covered by the Bill. In due course we shall have programmes fashioned to the needs of individual areas, reflected in the councils.

We shall be examining the Bill clause by clause. I can rely on Members of the Committee to give attention to the fine detail that is merited. I shall be happy as we do so—rather than having, if I may respectfully say so, a Second Reading debate—to respond to particular clauses as they arise.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

It would be helpful to have a dictionary before we begin. Who are the "court users"? Who are the "customers"? Do the customers sit in the dock? Are they the people who have to travel to the court? Who are the people referred to in all the jargon contained in the Bill?

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

I am grateful to the Minister for her full reply—so full that it seemed to extend across virtually all the key concepts in the Bill. I shall not respond to more than those that related to my amendment. I am sure the Minister will have noted the fact that all Members of the Committee who spoke—I am grateful for their support—were in favour of both my amendment and the two with which it is grouped. There was no contrary voice.

Perhaps I may prevail on the Minister at least to think more about the key words on which the whole of the Bill is founded. Her answer to my points was that one should not be concerned about the absence of a reference to justice or fairness or, promoting confidence in the rule of law". As she said, the business of the courts is the business of justice. That is a fair point, and one I accept. I ask the Minister, in turn, fairly to accept, for reasons of symbolism and public understanding, if nothing else, that that implication should find a place on the face of the Bill.

Lord Clinton-Davis

Will the noble Lord give way? The effect of his remarks is implied in everything that is done by the courts and on behalf of the courts. Why does he insist on underwriting this provision?

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

Very simply, because one should not rely on an implication where a central duty of the Lord Chancellor under the whole of the Bill is expressed in other terms. If the noble Lord is saying the same as the noble Baroness—and I believe that he is—my argument is simply that what I have been discussing should be on the face of the Bill. It is bizarre that concepts of fairness, justice and public confidence in the law find no place here.

My final point is that what language there is in the Bill is the language of the Treasury. It is business-speak: "efficiency", "effectiveness", "the business of the courts", "appropriate services". I am afraid to say that too much legislation passing through this place in this era is Treasury driven. The great mantra of this Government seems to be "efficiency and effectiveness". They are meaningless words. They allow to be imported into them precisely what the Government want. I feel very strongly—as I sense do other Members of the Committee—that whatever else we do, we should start on the right foot and include the words in my amendment, or others like them, on the face of the Bill. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 9, at end insert "in both rural and urban areas

The noble Baroness said: I think it is appropriate that I test the opinion of the Committee. I beg to move.

8 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 41; Not-Contents, 55.

Division No. 1
Anelay of St Johns, B. Luke, L.
Astor of Hever, L. Lyell, L.
Barker, B. McNally, L.
Blatch, B. Mancroft, L.
Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, L. Mar, C.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Masham of Ilton, B.
Chalker of Wallasey, B. Mayhew of Twysden, L.
Cope of Berkeley, L. [Teller] Patten, L.
Craigavon, V. Phillips of Sudbury, L.
Crickhowell, L. Rennard, L.
Cumberlege, B. Renton, L.
Dixon-Smith, L. Sandberg, L.
Seccombe, B. [Teller]
Elis-Thomas, L. Shutt of Greetland, L.
Fookes, B. Skelmersdale, L.
Goodhart, L. Smith of Clifton, L.
Goschen, V. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Harris of Richmond, B. Strathclyde, L.
Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L. Thomas of Gresford, L.
Kimball, L Waddington, L.
King of Bridgwater, L. Windlesham, L.
Acton, L. Gavron, L.
Ahmed, L. Gibson of Market Rasen, B.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Golding, B.
Bassam of Brighton, L. Goudie, B.
Bhatia, L. Grocott, L. [Teller]
Blackstone, B. Hogg of Cumbernauld, L.
Borrie, L. Howells of St. Davids, B.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. Hoyle, L.
Carter, L. Hughes of Woodside, L.
Chandos, V. Hunt of Kings Heath, L.
Clark of Windermere, L. Jones, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Kirkhill, L.
David, B. Layard, L.
Davies of Coity, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. [Teller]
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
Dubs, L. Mallalieu, B.
Eatwell, L. Morgan, L.
Elder, L. Plant of Highfield, L.
Evans of Parkside, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L. Puttnam, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Filkin, L. Sawyer, L.
Gale, B. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Taylor of Blackburn, L. Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Varley, L. Williamson of Horton, L.
Walker of Doncaster, L. Winston, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving the Motion, I suggest that the House be again in Committee at 9.11 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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